Love Wins: The Shifting Landscape on LGBT Issues in the Evangelical Church

For those who have heard my personal story, you know that I was raised in a deeply conservative evangelical church and went on to become president of a progressive national political organization. Due in large part to my fundamentalist upbringing, I didn't begin addressing my sexuality until age 31 and didn't come out publicly until age 33. Today I identify as a gay evangelical Christian, and I have a unique understanding and perspective from both sides of an issue that has become the cultural flashpoint of our generation.

While I've spent most of the last decade embroiled in various political battles, this blog is something altogether different. There is still plenty of work to be done around gay rights in this country, especially in socially conservative places like my home state of West Virginia. But the truth is that even leading conservatives acknowledge that gay marriage in all 50 states in the U.S. is a foregone conclusion. I look forward to celebrating that day, and I trust it's only a matter of time. There is also a legitimate discussion to be had around the issue of religious liberties, and this debate has escalated and taken on a new sense of urgency in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby ruling. But again, that is not what I intend to address here.

Beyond the public policy implications, what I remain most concerned about is how the current winner-take-all battle between evangelical Christians and the LGBT community is actually doing a tremendous disservice to both sides of the debate and leaving millions of real people in the crossfire. And related to that, I'm deeply troubled by how evangelical churches are handling the issue within their own four walls.

Agreeing to disagree

A widely circulated article in Politico last week explored in depth how attitudes toward LGBT people have shifted within the evangelical community in recent years. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows that support for marriage equality from white evangelical Protestants has more than doubled in the past decade, from 11 percent in 2004 to 23 percent in 2014. Despite these meaningful gains, this demographic continues to overwhelming opposes gay rights and in many ways is the last frontier in the struggle for LGBT acceptance in the U.S.

For starters, it's time for the Left and the Right to redefine the rules of engagement. I'll admit that I'm growing exceptionally weary of seeing my fellow evangelical Christians rush to social media to defend Duck Dynasty or line up at the local Chick-fil-A just to prove a point. I have friends and acquaintances who react this way, and regardless of their motivations, it stings on a personal level. But the progressive community in particular needs to understand that even many years from now it's unlikely that everyone will come to complete agreement on this issue.

Here's a shocking piece of news. Just because someone doesn't support gay rights doesn't automatically make them a hateful bigot. I have immediate family members who oppose marriage equality and believe my sexual orientation is sinful, but I've honestly not once questioned their love for me. I understand that they have deeply held beliefs about morality, which they would argue are born out of love and concern for me, not hatred. I certainly want to challenge their thinking on this, but their unwavering agreement and support for my position is not a prerequisite for our relationship.

Don't get me wrong. There is plenty of anti-LGBT bigotry dressed in religious language. For example, Christian parents who quote Scripture and exile their gay children in the same breath are not demonstrating love nor any other Biblical virtue for that matter.

But it is not necessarily the case that conservative evangelical doctrine always stems from a place of hate. Every time gay rights activists assert this correlation, they are demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of certain religious traditions, and they are forcing many church leaders into a defensive position, which is not a productive starting point for open dialogue.

Jon Lovett, former speechwriter for President Obama, earlier this year made a strong case in The Atlantic against the "culture of shut up," where the strategy for winning an argument is to silence the opposition:

Because no matter how noble the intent, it's a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other. And, ultimately, the cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott, will leave us with fewer and fewer people talking more and more about less and less... the bottom line is, you don't beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea.

Every progressive activist in America knows that LGBT rights are advancing at a breathtaking pace. We are winning this fight on the merits. The remaining opposition is largely within the evangelical Christian community, but it's foolish to think this group can be ridiculed into submission or silenced into oblivion.

Where the Right went wrong

At the same time, this doesn't mean that anger at the church isn't justified. I would be the first to personally attest to the damage that the church has inflicted due to its historical approach on the issue of homosexuality. In many respects, the modern evangelical movement is currently reaping what is has sown for decades. For many years, leaders within the Christian Right decided to vilify LGBT people for political purposes, creating a social wedge issue that paid off handsomely during many election cycles. Of course, the tables have turned and popular opinion has shifted under their feet in dramatic fashion, and now many of those same religious leaders are playing the victim card.

But here's an important point to remember. Long after this political debate becomes passé and marriage certificates are being issued to gay couples in even the reddest of states, there will be young LGBT people sitting in the pews of evangelical churches just like I did still wrestling with intense shame or worse. The plight of these young people does not necessarily improve with the outcome of a Supreme Court ruling.

The recent controversy around World Vision's LGBT employment policy is a reminder that many segments of the evangelical community remain deeply entrenched. World Vision reports that approximately 10,000 sponsorships of needy children were cancelled due to conservative Christians objecting to gay and lesbians serving openly on staff of the organization. It's not hard for me to argue that terminating support for impoverished kids over this issue is far from Christ-like. In fact, this incident actually exposed the church's unhealthy obsession with homosexuality where literally no price is too high to pay to avoid ceding an inch to an LGBT cause.

In the wake of the World Vision controversy, I had discussions with conservative Christian friends who acknowledged that things had gone too far. The evangelical movement had suffered a black eye and the central message of Christ had been drowned out by a food fight over a controversial social issue. Yet in this winner-take-all battle, it was hard for them to see a different path forward.

Pray the gay away?

It's important to understand that the majority of evangelical churches currently argue that homosexuality is a choice or was caused by some negative factors during early childhood development. Either way, many pastors would assert that a change in sexual orientation is not only possible but actually expected if you hope to pursue a life of obedience to God.

The problem with this doctrine is that it flies in the face of all clinical evidence. It is well understood that sexuality is not a choice and that a change in orientation is exceedingly rare. The most prominent faith-based gay conversion therapy program, Exodus International, actually shuttered its doors in 2013 and made a sweeping apology to thousands of former patients. In a public statement, their CEO Alan Chambers acknowledged the ineffectiveness of the treatment and the damage that had been done to many clients over the years:

Exodus is an institution in the conservative Christian world, but we've ceased to be a living, breathing organism. For quite some time we've been imprisoned in a worldview that's neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical... I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn't change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.

Exodus International was once held up as the gold standard in evangelical circles for their conversion therapy "success stories." It should give pause to many conservative Christians when an organization like this shuts down and issues an apology.

My own life story was deeply impacted by these types of teachings. I can tell you first hand that if the conservative evangelical community has a hierarchy or sins, homosexuality is at the very top. Until the age of 31, I prayed tirelessly for a change in my sexual orientation. I went through decades in total silence, unwilling to vocalize to another person the shame that I was experiencing. And my story is by no means an isolated example. Right now in churches all across the country there are young LGBT people who are suffocating under the weight of what it means to be gay in such an environment with nowhere to turn.

When I finally did come out publicly about my sexuality, a close friend who is a pastor told me that I needed to be careful about advancing a pro-gay theology because I could be a "false prophet" and could be leading lots of people down the wrong path. My response to him and to so many other ministers is to pose the very same question back to them. What if you're getting this thing wrong? What if the approach you're taking on LGBT issues is creating false expectations about change and actually causing damage to young people? What if current church teachings on homosexuality are unnecessarily leading to widespread depression, suicide and a total abandonment of faith? Who is to be held accountable for that?

A shifting landscape

Looking ahead 10 or 15 years, it's my firm belief that the evangelical community will have undergone a tremendous shift in its understanding of homosexuality. Any church that continues to hold to the idea that being gay is a choice or that sexual orientation can change will be well outside the mainstream - akin to a flat earth society. But this also does not automatically equate to broad acceptance of gay relationships.

Evangelical churches will largely fall into two camps. First will be those congregations that move to become open and affirming to LGBT people, not by abandoning Scripture but by seeking to understand cultural context and a more nuanced interpretation of key verses throughout the Bible. Evangelical churches have always taken a fairly literal approach to hermeneutics; however, even Biblical literalist have made concessions over the centuries as we have gained a deeper understanding on a broad variety of topics, both scientifically and sociologically. In recent years, such a shift has occurred within more theologically liberal denominations with regards to LGBT issues, and the trend will ultimately spill over to some evangelical congregations, especially as the Millennial Generation increasingly takes on senior leadership roles.

The second camp will be closer to the conservative tradition, maintaining that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful but at the same time acknowledging that one's sexuality is not a choice and a change in orientation is highly unlikely. This will look markedly different from the hardline messages being delivered from church pulpits today. These congregations will work to create supportive and open environments for LGBT people who choose celibacy, a scenario that exists in very few local churches at the present time. Gone will be the days of "pray the gay away" in exchange for a more nuanced but difficult message of lifelong singlehood that requires much greater sympathy from those who were previously inclined to dish out trite pastoral platitudes. Personally, this is not a theology that I adhere to, and there is surely cause for concern about the emotional and spiritual toll this doctrine could have on gay and lesbian Christians. However, I would contend that incremental progress is noteworthy, even if it's as simple as churches finally acknowledge that LGBT individuals are in literally every congregation and that shame, condemnation, and silence are not appropriate responses.

But here's the most refreshing development on the horizon. Evangelicals will stop behaving as if all of Christendom hinges on the outcome of the debate over LGBT rights. A person's views on homosexuality will no longer be the litmus test for the soundness of their faith. The church will stop presenting ridiculous false choices about hiring gay staff or supporting hungry children. Christians will learn to agree to disagree with each other while allowing the work of Christ to continue.

Over the centuries, Christians have held differing opinions on a variety of issues, and at times throughout church history some of these issues were deeply contentious. The current fight over Scripture's treatment of gay relationships is certainly not the first time it's been suggested the gospel will be undone by a narrow theological debate. But just as in the past, Christianity will survive this skirmish too, and I suspect that within a decade or two we will choose which congregation we attend based on a variety of factors, not just this one.

Love wins

One of the recent rallying cries for the LGBT movement has been "Love is love." One of the most common phrases in Christianity is "God is love." Everyone is pushing the Love agenda but not enough of us are practicing it. Love means listening more and yelling less. Love means pausing long enough to consider another perspective. Love means making an effort to get to know someone from a dissimilar background. Love means taking risks and stepping outside of what's comfortable. Love means being willing to face criticism for ceding an inch to the other side.

I'm a gay Christian from a conservative family fighting for a progressive cause. Compassion and understanding don't weaken my argument for equal rights; in fact, they strengthen it. Openness and respect for differences don't weaken my faith; in fact, they strengthen it. In the end, no matter which side we're on, love wins if we let it.